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Reviews of Ibn Battuta in Black Africa

“Ibn Battuta’s narrative allows us to look at that country through eyes unlike our own. For once, sub-Saharan Africa is viewed without the intrusion of colonialism and racism, as just another corner of a large and fascinating world … This book provides much food for thought, combined with the simple pleasure of a good travel tale well told.” — The Boston Globe

“… lively translation … outstanding introduction … appealing illustrations … useful maps…” — World History Bulletin

“When a tradition speaks for itself we most effectively perceive what it is about. That is why finding appropriate original sources is one of the most important and difficult tasks of teaching world history. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa is a delightful discovery. Abdallah Ibn Battuta was one of the most celebrated of medieval travelers. His Rihla, or Book of Travels, details his journeys crisscrossing Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia, India, Indonesia and China between 1325 and 1354. Said Hamdun and Noël King have translated those portions of the Rihla that describe Ibn Battuta’s travels to East Africa in 1329 or 1331 and his more extended sojourn in West Africa between 1352 and 1354. Although only a small part of Rihla, it is ‘the black African section of his travels [that] confirms his preeminence’ because it represents the only firsthand account we have of either the East African city-states or the empire of Mali in the fourteenth century.

“Even in this 60-page excerpt Ibn Battuta comes alive. He has eccentricities, prejudices, and conceits. But he is also a man of courage, curiosity, and conviction. It is because Ibn Battuta ‘is somehow so real and like ourselves that soon we enter the more deeply into the narrative and see things through his eyes.’ What we see is a fragment of African civilization before European intrusion. Even that glimpse helps dispel the myths of African backwardness and isolation. The brief description of the East African city states of Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa is less interesting than the longer and more richly detailed account of Mali. But in both we see the wealth, orderliness, and stability of African political organization, and the sophistication, complexity and security of African trading networks.

“The extent and familiarity of slavery in Africa and use of skin color as a dividing line between white and black populations both become apparent. We learn something of the richness of African cities and the dietary habits of their peoples. We find disapproving descriptions of the immodesty of the women of Mali who do not veil, have male friends and even go bare breasted in public.

“Even more clearly we see the connections of African communities to the wider world of Islam. The goods available testify to the extent of trade with this world. As Ibn Battuta records the people he meets we get a vivid picture of the Islamic world as an international, cosmopolitan, and tolerant civilization. A manuscript written in Baghdad is in the library of the sultan of Mali. The brother of a man Ibn Battuta met in China offers him hospitality in Mali. Although the shaykh disapproves, Christians, schismatics and animists seem free to come and go and worship as they choose.

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa is packaged for classroom use. The foreword by Ross E. Dunn is an outstanding introduction to the historical and cultural context of the narrative. The text itself is short and the translation lively. Unfortunately, because this is a new edition of a work first published in 1975, the extensive notes and bibliography are woefully out of date. The two appendices seem unnecessary. But the illustrations, which range from contemporary miniatures to modem photographs, are visually appealing and the maps are very useful.

“This is a valuable and multipurpose addition to our arsenal of primary sources for courses on African, Middle Eastern, Islamic, medieval and world history. In its animated picture of African and Islamic civilization and the world system in which they function, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa is a sure antidote to the eurocentricity of most American and European medieval historians.” — Christina W. Michelmore, Journal of World History